Happy International Women’s Day!
In preparing to write this special post for IWD, I found it difficult to choose a single topic on which to focus. Without a doubt I knew I wanted to spotlight one of the many sociocultural issues in my current home of Cambodia, there being a dire necessity to raise awareness and promote dialogue about gender and human rights issues, especially among Cambodians.
But which issue? Both fortunately and unfortunately, there are many from which to choose, and trying to narrow it down to a “most important” issue is simply impossible for me.
Which directs me to immediate, grassroots goings-on that are affecting and involving people right around me.
Many gender issues in Cambodia are intrinsically connected to this concept of “Development”. Now, it cannot be denied that I have some major hang-ups with “Development” (in any country). While the aims of Development may be noble in and of themselves, the ideologies and methodologies frequently employed to achieve those aims remain embedded in racist, classist, and sexist contexts which ultimately undermine their success, purpose, and effectiveness. I have found this to be very much the case in Cambodia.
Though it’s tempting to concentrate on these more negative aspects of Development, in honor of IWD and Gender Across Border’s special theme, I would like to draw attention to the positive. (I’m sure my more regular readers are quite astounded, but hey– I’m not always a cynic when it comes to gender!)
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious yet seriously under-discussed problem here in the Kingdom of Wonder, especially when that violence is occurring within a familial context. There are two complimentary Khmer proverbs which describe the larger sociocultural attitude towards familial violence: “Don’t bring the fire into the house,” which means to discourage people from bringing “outside problems” into their home (i.e. if it’s not our problem, it’s none of our business); and “Don’t take the fire outside of the house,” which seeks to discourage people from discussing “internal” or family issues with people outside of the family. In other words, there is a lot of silence surrounding issues of familial violence in Cambodia.
There are people who are talking about “the fire”, though, and are doing it loudly and in ways that involve those directly affected by it.
Both McCormick and East are volunteers living in Cambodia with Khmer families, McCormick at the village level and East at the provincial level. They have been here for just over a year and a half, researching, working with locals, and organizing grassroots projects on various issues; both have a special interest in gender, to which they devote a significant amount of time and energy.
Recently their time and energy culminated in a workshop on domestic violence. The workshop, which was hosted by the local office of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kampong Chhnang Province, sponsored participants from fields which come into direct contact (usually through provision of services) with domestic violence survivors. More than 120 health center staff members, police officers, and village and commune government representatives attended the workshop sessions, which were co-hosted by local Cambodian NGOs and MOWA.
In spite of many obstacles, including resistance from their own superiors, McCormick and East were determined to bring attention to a subject which mainstream Cambodian culture wants to ignore. Most appreciatively, they sought to do so by educating and empowering the all-female staff of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, who led the workshop in conjunction with local NGOs in spite of not having an prior leadership experience. This is especially positive because McCormick and East recognize that Development and change are only as effective as the efforts made by sustainable sources– namely, local peoples.
Opening dialogue about issues directly impacting women and girls in Cambodia is a necessary first step to affecting successful change in behaviors and attitudes concerning gender. It has been my experience that Cambodian girls and women want to discuss these issues, but there are very few safe and open contexts in which they can do so. Perhaps this is one benefit of etic forces (such as McCormick and East), who can encourage women to actively create and participate in those contexts with significantly less stigmatization. I do not deny that this is the product of racist and classist privilege which have been projected onto volunteers like McCormick and East. Yet rather than partaking of and enjoying those privileges for themselves, these two young women push the boundaries of privilege into the realm of risk-taking in order to raise consciousness about gender and human rights within their local communities. By expanding the territory of “acceptable” dialogue, volunteers both etic and emic empower women and girls at all levels to talk about the issues that they face every day.